All my life I’ve been quiet. Like the textbook introvert, I only felt comfortable to fully express myself around people I was close to. My mode of operation is to just sit here and eat my food, observing until something piques my interest.
But as I got older, I found myself in situations that most Black people do. Having grown up in exclusively suburban areas, I faced racism in the form of microaggressions rather than outright violence or hatred. When I was younger, I understood that these things made me feel awkward and uncomfortable, but I didn’t have the language to express to my white and non-black peers that what they were saying and doing was in fact racist.
High school and college, however, were the times in my life when I became more active on social media, and thus encountered talking points and discussions about racism and microaggressions for the first time. By learning what this all was, I also learned “the right way” to handle these situations: an articulately brutal read of the racist in question, simply throwing hands, etc.
I co-signed such reactions through a retweet to say, “Yea, of course! I’ll say something like this next time that happens to me, easy!” But when I was once again faced with an ignorant or racist classmate, all I could muster up was a death glare in their direction. I clammed up instead of going off. And I always felt ashamed afterwards.
Why was I ashamed? Because on a subconscious level I felt that I was betraying myself and the ideal image of a Social Justice Warrior Black Girl. But something I realized was that this version of Black girls was just another version of The Strong Black Woman archetype. A box inside of a bigger (yet still suffocating) box.
A Black girl standing up against injustice and racism meant that she was (rightfully) angry. And to be angry meant she was loud, forceful, and strong, which seems to be the most effective way to get white and non-black people to actually pay attention. This image of Black women was reinforced in my mind and I believed that if I wasn’t loud about my discomfort—that if I didn’t immediately call someone out—then I was being a Black girl the wrong way.
In high school, my white friend once said she was “Blacker than me” simply because she knew words to rap songs and I didn’t (I was on the indie wave, sue me). When I confronted her, she seemed annoyed and upset that I even brought it up. The whole thing made me feel incredibly awkward and I quickly brushed it aside.
Just last year, a younger white co-worker casually said “n*gga” when talking about a guy she had been with. It happened so quickly that I wasn’t even sure if she had really said the word, but nonetheless I stayed quiet and continued doing my work.
And during a poetry workshop, an ancient old white man was having a heated discussion with one of the only Black girls in the class about a poem we read written by a Black woman wanting to express her rage over microaggressions through violence. I was so angry that I could barely move, much less speak out. I was afraid of my voice shaking or that I’d even start crying. But more than that, I felt horrible for leaving that girl to go up against him by herself.
After all of these instances (and plenty of others) I tossed and turned over how my hesitance surely made me complicit in their racism. That notion devastated me, and recently I even confided in my best friend, a non-black WOC, about this inner conflict. What she told me shed some new light on the matter. She said that hearing the n-word or experiencing any sort of microaggression as a Black person is a form of violence, simply because they are forms of racism which is inherently violent. And it’s unfair to expect every Black person to react to any type of racial violence in the exact same way.
Everyone is different. Every Black person is different. And trying to squeeze yourself into a box that doesn’t quite fit for the sake of not feeling like a traitor isn’t the way to go. The truth is that if you’ve been introverted all your life, you probably won’t switch to Malcolm X mode every time you hear a non-black person say the n-word in casual conversation.
I think the most important thing is to know what you stand for, what you believe in…what you will and will not tolerate. Live your life by those standards and speak when you feel safe enough—brave enough to. And remember, being brave means doing something even if it scares you. I have to work on this, too. It’s important to stand up against prejudice and ignorance when you encounter it. But it’s also important to protect your energy. Sometimes you’re just tired of being the mouthpiece for all Black people, or you don’t even want to entertain racists with a conversation that may very well go nowhere.
Deciding how to navigate situations of racism is an ongoing process you have to work through when you’re Black. But beating yourself up as a Black girl, guy, or nonbinary person for not being a certain way is only adding to the minefield we already have to walk through every day. Be kind and understanding to yourself, first and foremost. When you do, this can open the door to finding your own voice and learning how to use it, your way, outside of any boxes and without shame.